So said Dr Alex McKay, sitting across from me in a Toronto café in July 2019. Dr McKay is the Executive Director of the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada. I met with him on my Churchill Fellowship, which had taken me across Europe and North America to research the implementation of comprehensive relationships and sexuality education (‘RSE’).
He was arguing that young people are entitled to access RSE, and this particular statement felt like a light bulb moment for me. Dr McKay was my final Fellowship interview, yet I realised I had been hearing this sentiment for several months prior.
Until it was expressed explicitly by Dr McKay, I had not noticed almost all the professionals I spoke with during my Fellowship had been using the language of a right or an entitlement to access RSE. Across Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, and Canada they had been sounding this chorus – RSE specialists, policymakers, developers, researchers and educators alike.
It is why in Germany they separate the sexual violence prevention and sexuality education branches of their federal public health department, recognising that they are not the same thing, although related. It is why an award-winning RSE developer in England described it as a ‘deficit model’, to only teach about sex and relationships in terms of the presence or absence of consent. It is why RSE specialists in another part of England told me the assumption that young people with disabilities will never have relationships or sex lives fails to recognise their right to self-determination and sexual wellbeing (Marson 2019).
This is not to say these RSE professionals did not recognise the power of such education to protect against sexual violence – they did. But they did not see it as the raison d’etre of RSE; rather it was a powerful corollary of something that is fundamentally justified in its own right.
Having established networks with key Australian stakeholders in RSE development and implementation since my return, I have been able to confirm that experts and advocates here share this concern about the risk in conceptualising the predominant purpose of RSE as sexual violence prevention. At home and abroad, RSE is recognised as necessary to equip people with the information and skills they need to live a fulfilling life, beyond the absence of violence.
Having started from a harm prevention perspective myself, I now argue that RSE is a human rights issue, and that the rights in question are not only those of potential victims or perpetrators of sexual violence. This is because framing RSE principally for the prevention of sexual violence fails to capture other important rights, and thereby fails to meet the needs of all.
A holistic rights-based approach to RSE understands harm prevention as a by-product of sexual wellbeing: ‘The right to sexual self-determination is part of any sex education, as is learning the best communication forms for dealing with things such as feelings, physicality, love and sexuality…Sex education is one component in the prevention of violence and abuse’ (Böhm and Proll 2015).
Wellbeing is more than the absence of harm – it is a positive, fulfilling existence, not merely one absent of violence, harassment or illness (WHO 2002). However, the positive right of children and young people to access RSE that would allow them to fulfil their right to wellbeing is not always recognised, in part because they are not seen to need it before adulthood. This is despite the fact that the foundations of self-determination and the ability to pursue a fulfilling life do not spontaneously manifest when a young person reaches the age of consent. In other words, withholding this information and education until late childhood or adolescence is leaving it too late: young people do not simply wake up on their 16th birthday1 with the ability to make nuanced, ethical and informed decisions (BZgA, WHO and UNFPA 2015).
While the potential for education to prevent violence before it occurs should not be minimised, we should not accept that harm prevention is the sole or primary purpose of relationships and sexuality education. Justification for the right to access RSE – beyond the right to live free from sexual violence – can be found in contemporary rights discourse and core human rights documents.
1. The age of consent in most Australian jurisdictions.